NIGMS MIRA for ESI/NI differs slightly. Ok, fundamentally.

Jun 03 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

NIGMS has been attempting to grapple with the problem of stability in research funding for its extramural awardees. Which is a great thing to focus on, given the instability in recent years and the wasted time and effort of PIs and their laboratories which is devoted to maintaining stable funding.

In January NIGMS launched the MIRA program (R35 mechanism) to issue 5 year awards (instead of current NIGMS average of 4) of up to $750,000 in direct costs. The idea is that current NIGMS awardees would consolidate their existing NIGMS awards into this one R35, promise to devote at least 51% of their research effort to this R35 and overall take less in NIGMS funding.

The immediate objections were severalfold but more or less focused on why the already privileged NIGMS stalwarts with three or more concurrent full-modular ($250,000 direct) awards' worth of funding should now get this extra isolation from the review process. If the limited number of such individuals selected for MIRA now had research funds that were isolated from the grasp of peer review (the fifth year, the all-or-none nature of the $750,000 direct in one award) then obviously the unlucky would be further disadvantaged.

One such pool of the unlucky would be the ESI (and NI) investigators.

NIGMS assured us that they were planning to extend MIRA to ESI/NI in the very near future. Peter Preusch commented:

We plan to issue a MIRA funding opportunity for early stage investigators as quickly as possible. We hope the first application due date will be sometime this summer.

Well, RFA-GM-16-003 has arrived. And it is nothing like the real MIRA for the highly established insider club* of NIGMS extramural funding.

1) It is limited to $250,000 in direct costs
2) It will be for the duration of the "current average of R01 awards to new investigators", read 4 years, I assume. Even if the current average is 5, this can change. Why not just write in 5 as for the main MIRA?
3) Competing renewals "may" be allowed to increase substantially. There is of course no guarantee of this and if they were serious they could have simply written in language such as "the second interval will increase the limit to $500K direct and the third to $750K direct". They did not.

This is either ridiculously ill-considered or a cynical figleaf designed to give political cover for the excesses of the real target, the MIRA for the highly-established.

Here is what is so fundamentally foot-shooting about this, if you assume that NIGMS has any interest in shepherding the careers of their future stalwarts. The current stalwarts they are trying to protect are multi-grant awardees. Three full-modular and two-plus if you assume one of those awards is a traditional budget up to the $500K stiff (but not insurmountable) limit. Yet here they are trying to take what might be thought of as this same population at an earlier career stage and making sure they only get one full-modular worth of NIGMS funding from the start. This is insanely ill-considered.

And no ESI PI who thinks of herself as a future multi-grant NIGMS stalwart (and perhaps real-MIRA qualified) should have any interest in this baby MIRA whatsoever. All it comes with are limits for such a PI.

A secondary consideration is the review of such applications. Wisely, NIGMS has made this an RFA which means they get to design their own review panels.

This is wise because these special-flower-protection grants (real MIRA and baby-MIRA alike) stand a good risk of getting shredded in regular study sections. I'm thinking there is a good risk of them getting shredded in whatever SEPs they manage to convene too, unless they do a good job of selecting quid-pro-quo qualified reviewers.

Related Aside: BigMechs like Program Projects and Centers are very often reviewed by panels of other BigMech Program Directors and component PIs. This is consistent with the general requirement that grants should be reviewed by panels with like-experience. However, this lets in a great deal of quid-pro-quo reviewing in the sense that the reviewers know these applicants will be coming back to review their Boondoggles, sorry BigMechs when they are up for competing review. Thus, these mechanisms are very unlikely to face review of the kind that disagrees fundamentally with the concept of the BigMech. Unlikely to get anyone saying "none of this is worth the cost, these shouldn't be funded and the money should be put back** in the R-mech pool".

Regular R-mech study sections are disproportionally staffed by midcareer scientists. Given the likely number of MIRAs on offer, disproportionally staffed by scientists who will not feel like they have the slightest chance at a MIRA award. I predict a good deal of skepticism from the general reviewer about these R35 mechanisms and I predict very bad scores.

Which is why NIGMS will have to be careful to cherry pick a quid-pro-quo qualified reviewer pool. And, as is usually the case with BigMechs, be prepared to fund them with scores that would not be remotely competitive for regular R01 review.

*Remember, PIs with more than two concurrent RPGs are less than 9% of the entire NIH funded population (in FY2009, according to Rockey). How many can there be with three or more NIGMS awards?

**there are some technicalities with pools of $$ that make this slightly more complicated than this but you get the flavor

39 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    Just another junior HHMI for glam seekers. No CNS = no chance. There is nothing wrong with that for a limited mech, but lets be clear about it. If you can't match these guys, do not apply:

  • boehninglab says:

    I could never figure out who would apply for the regular MIRA, as they are also restrictive (the RFA states outright that the MIRA budget will be less than the combined two parent grants). Also, the wording is just as vague in some parts as the noob MIRA. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

  • Dave says:

    I could never figure out who would apply for the regular MIRA, as they are also restrictive

    There are two main reasons to apply (if you buy the vague language)

    1) Renewal will be easier (RFA implies much easier)

    2) Renewal will be less painful (RFA implies that fundign will be cut off gradually)

  • KILL THE MID-CAREER SCHLUBS WITH ONE R01!!!!!!!!!!11!1!111!!!11!!!111!!!

  • shrew says:

    I mean getting too deep into critiquing that early career HHMI list is veering far afield from the OP, but...damn. That is a sausage fest.
    Or perhaps HHMI would prefer: a bromantic list of 27 chill science bros who are totally crushing it (and also 5 women).

    On topic, I fail to see how applying for an R01 by a different name that prevents you from applying for other R01s is at all worthwhile. If you are a MIRA-"quality" young investigator, why waste your time when the DP2 exists?

  • Masked Avenger says:

    BigMech? Big Meh! Same bullshit story, same bullshit results.

    NIH is finding new, more creative ways to find their next Anil Potti. Good luck with that, jackasses.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Given the funding situation right now- I'm not quite certain about the limits of this outweighing possible benefits. Meaning, an NIGMS modular right now is 188.5K direct costs because 250K modulars are slashed to that basically across the board. Yes the initial limit says you are sticking to 250K, but that is a lot more than a 1X R01 at real modular now. The only way for this to save NIGMS money is if it is less than say 2 modulars at the slashed rate (5 years at 188.5K for grant 1 and 4 years at 188.5K for hypothetical grant number 2). So ~1.7M over say 5-6 years total in a really good scenario for a PI versus 1.25M over 5 years. If costs went to 300K/year, you can simulate it out, but that is a money losing situation for NIGMS most likely. I'm not as cynical about this as some, but I really would want to crunch the numbers and think about it. NIGMS cannot have a magic mech without more funding, therefore they have to save money. Giving 20-25% more real dollars when asking people to opt out of the possibility of a jackpot (2 R01s in NIGMS) is what they are saying. What are the counter arguments that take into account how the mech has to work.

  • Philapodia says:

    I see these baby MIRA awards as a way for BSD-spawn to get a leg up on funding. This sentence gives a hint "More widely distribute funding among the nation’s highly talented and promising investigators to increase overall scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs. " You can almost see the words "vertically ascending science" implicit in this sentence. Who are the best ones to select those youngun's? Probably MIRA awardees or other 3+ grant investigators (who will likely be pushing for these awards to go to their trainees).

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I think this actually could be seen as positive for med school faculty. The reason being the 51% effort would seem to preclude an additional non GM R01 for someone w a 9 month appointment. However someone on 100 or 75% would have effort to chase additional non GM grants.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Thinking more, this is a big giveaway because if it ends up being easier to renew than a regular R01, the investigators that get it to begin with will get it more on reputation and then possibly can continue in that vein. If it ends up being a special snowflake award, that certainly is not good. It certainly continues the squeeze on mid-career people. Those transitioning from ESI to mid the last 5-6 years will have done so in the worst funding climate possible, so not likely to make up a great fraction of the regular MIRA pool, and will miss out on this Jr. MIRA pool- though by surviving at this time they represent an otherwise very competitive cohort, but one that is being squeezed by truncated grants and high probability of slow death spiral. HAPPY WEDNESDAY

  • jmz4gtu says:

    I'm with Pinko, as someone hoping to start a lab in the next year or two, this would look appealing, if 1) I have substantial institutional salary contribution 2) I had a good, unlimited duration startup.

    But they should make the youngin ones longer term, and just a slight boost in directs. That would help balance out some of the tradeoffs. Part of the problem with funding right now is that it is so unpredictable that everyone feels they need to be gunning for 3 R01s all the time, just to have a modicum of stability.

    Personally, I'd be quite happy with something like 300k/year directs with a promise that they won't hear from me until 6-8 years when I'm ready (and capable) to try to expand my lab beyond 4-5 people. Some types of research take comparatively little money (e.g. computational and C. elegans), and so this could be very appealing for someone starting out in a hard money spot with teaching obligations, because it would give them space and time to solidify themselves, get them through a tenure review, and build up some very solid lines of inquiry for their mature lab to submit RPGs.

  • Ola says:

    As an NIGMS funded peep, the problem is this - one R01 is not enough. $170k directs just doesn't cut it with my homey the Dean. Solution - go get a second grant. Problem then, is GMS having having a lot more 2-3 grant PIs than other institutions (I'm just basing this on what I heard - sounds like a sleuth job for @datahound to see if it's true).

    Of course they could just fund the original R01s at full cost, like the other institutes do, and save a bunch of extra admin and review and gubmint pork associated with creating a new program. But yeah, screw that, GMS director got his legacy to think about. They created the problem with the whole "1 grant ain't enough" crap, but going back to simply paying full direct costs would be an admission of failure. Better to gussy it up in a fancy new program wrapper and take the credit for "saving" GMS from the wrath of the multi-grant PI. Puh-fuckin-leeze!

    After all, when ur entire portfolio is the dregs of stuff that the other disease based institutes didn't want, you gots to do something to stand out, right? (Ok, that last one was a little harsh)

  • Pinko Punko says:

    GM specifically has attempted to keep their base afloat because they are funding more investigators with smaller grants. Yes, they could go to pay lines of 10-12 instead of 15-18. I don't fault them for doing this- especially because a lot of basic research is a longer enterprise- or that has been their philosophy. Many other institutes appear to accept more one and done type grants, or perhaps this is those institutes culture evolving because of very low pay lines. GM (as we have discussed previously) talks about "where is this going to lead" and the FUTURE DIRECTIONZ etc etc. I'm not going to criticize them for keeping more people alive, but I think they know that given inflation, this is not a recipe for sustainability.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Ola, can they put the clause of 51% effort on a standard R01? This is key to the deal from NIGMS side.

  • newbie PI says:

    I looked at this and thought that I will definitely apply. I have a great CV, loads of ideas to write grants about, and my grants always go to another institute. Why wouldn't I write up something targeted to NIGMS? A special pot of money for newbie PIs that won't restrict ME from applying for my other grants! Sounds awesome!

  • Dave says:

    As an NIGMS funded peep, the problem is this - one R01 is not enough

    Right. But soon enough it will have to be. Can't get blood out of stone.

    No way these grants are not for The Glam Gang. They might as well put some sort of IF cutoff in the RFA as far as I'm concerned.

  • NIH folks keep coming up with new ideas like this despite the fact that they spend virtually no effort to understand the effects of their policies. When I propose experiments in grants, I have to have solid preliminary data, clear methods of analysis and a section on potential pitfalls and alternative approaches. They mean well, but hell, no one at the NIH seems to have heard that good intentions don't necessarily lead to good results. Do they have a model of how different factors affect the research enterprise? It really seems like they are in a constant state of winging it. Until the NIH puts effort into quantitative self-assessment, they should stick with as few mechanisms as possible.

  • GiveHHMI more says:

    One thing mose peeps miss is these people don't apply for modular R01s. If your 12-month is 130k (1 month is like 30-40 direct with bennys ect) and you need a couple of postdocs and techs your budget is at least 300k direct. My guess is that NIGMS wants to contribute early when all this crazy cost is being bank rolled by the uni and then pull out later when its "too specific" for NIGMS but really too expensive.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    So, should a LSD apply? Hypothetically speaking. Say you're at a small-pond, AREA-eligble place, where >$300K in directs is pretty rare. A single R01 worth of funding seems to outweigh the downside...

  • […] a recent Drugmonkey post on the new NIGMS MIRA Award announcement, a commenter suggested that NIGMS might have more R01 PIs […]

  • datahound says:

    Ola: NIGMS is actually slightly below the median in terms of the fraction of R01 PIs with multiple R01s.

  • […] there was immediate skepticism about how it would all work (also see comments the NIGMS blog), but give them credit for […]

  • Lurkette says:

    "No way these grants are not for The Glam Gang. "

    They are not. Glam Gang percent effort takes a hit from small foundation grants. No way they can do a 51% effort baby MIRA. E.g., the popular Whitehall Foundation grant requires 25% effort, while not allowing PI salary. Many other foundations also have effort expectations. DP2 is quite generous with a 25% research effort requirement. I predict that this baby MIRA may diversify the pool of fancy name award holders, since Glam Gang will largely ignore it.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    So, I have a very general, naive question regarding percent effort. Does the NIH actually keep track and make sure people aren't committing themselves to 110% effort?

  • SaG says:

    Yes they do. Of course as far as I know they don't verify the numbers provided by the PIs. This is problematic if the PIs have lots of non-NIH funding. NIH trusts but doesn't verify. Be honest folks.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The numbers are provided by the University, which is the actual award recipient. They have more skin in the game to keep accounting honest than does any one individual PI, btw.

    The Other Support document is provided prior to the award- both on original award and on each annual non-competing award. It tells the NIH what the proposed effort distribution will be. The progress report (which is the application for the next interval of no competing funding) includes a report on the effort devoted to that project over the reporting interval.

    Of course, as PP often points out, it is impossible to really account how many brain-seconds a PI devotes to any specific project. So these numbers are an exercise in....futility seems harsh but.....

  • physioprof says:

    Of course, as PP often points out, it is impossible to really account how many brain-seconds a PI devotes to any specific project. So these numbers are an exercise in....futility seems harsh but.....

    What I always point out concurrently is that the grant accounting rules required by the GAO to be followed explicitly acknowledge the impossibility of precisely accounting for "brain-seconds a PI devotes to any specific project", and explicitly allow for a variety of methods to be used to allocate professional effort so long as they are "reasonable".

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    Another naive question: if your appointment is 50% research, your total effort on grants must come in under 50%, correct? At what point does a study section ding you for not proposing enough effort?

  • SaG says:

    If your appt is 50% research then your grant could cover 100% of your research time which would equal 50% of your actual appt. time.

  • Newbie PI says:

    I'm putting the finishing touches on my MIRA application so I came back to read this post and the comments. I still can't figure out what the NIGMS is really thinking. Why would the best of their new investigators limit themselves to only one grant? My own rationale is that I wouldn't normally apply to NIGMS, so not being able to apply for more grants from them doesn't really affect me at all. This is actually a pretty smart way for NIGMS to get the best applicants from other institutes to apply to them. I wonder if that even crossed their minds.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Good luck to you!

  • physioprof says:

    This is actually a pretty smart way for NIGMS to get the best applicants from other institutes to apply to them. I wonder if that even crossed their minds.

    When thoughts of such arbitrage cross the minds of program staff, it goes in the opposite direction. They want as few applications as possible assigned to their ICs, as it means that their paylines increase.

  • qaz says:

    Physioprof, this has never been my experience with NIH program staff. (Nor has it ever been the experience of anyone I've talked to about NIH program staff.) They want more people assigned to them so they are more likely to get credit for big discoveries. (And don't forget that government budgets are based on spending needs, so more applicants means larger budgets.) In my experience, NIH program staff always want you in their section.

  • (And don't forget that government budgets are based on spending needs, so more applicants means larger budgets.)


  • L Kiswa says:

    Epic troll, qaz.

  • […] Kaiser reports that some people who applied for MIRA person-not-project support from NIGMS are now […]

  • Questions says:

    I'm not sure if there is any chance of anyone reading this and replying, but here goes:

    To be awarded the ESI MIRA, one must obviously be an ESI. But does this mean that you are an ESI at the time of submission, or must you still be an ESI at the time of award? I have an R01 application being reviewed at a different institute, so if this R01 were awarded, would I be disqualified from receiving the MIRA if this also received a fundable score? To be clear, at the time of submission of the MIRA, my R01 will have been reviewed, but certainly not yet funded.

  • drugmonkey says:

    When you have questions like this, it is always best to go directly to the Funding Opportunity Announcement and look at what it says.

    This FOA targets investigators who are beginning their independent research careers. Applications will be accepted from NIH defined Early Stage Investigators. Note that Early Stage Investigator status can be extended beyond the normal 10-year window after completion of the terminal research degree or medical residency for certain life or career events, as described in NOT-OD-09-034 and on the NIH website. A tenure track position is not required to be eligible for this award. Research Assistant Professors are eligible to apply. Postdoctoral fellows, including those on K99 awards, who have not established an independent laboratory are not eligible to apply. Individuals who have transitioned from the K99 phase to the R00 phase of a NIH Pathway to Independence Award are eligible to apply for a MIRA. PDs/PIs of Mentored Career Development (K) awards are eligible to apply for a MIRA award. Eligibility to apply is determined based on PD/PI status on the application due date. Eligibility to receive the award is determined at the time of award. Applicants who receive R01, SC1, DP1, DP2, or any other type of disqualifying award prior to issuance of the R35 are not eligible to receive the award. Applications from investigators who are not eligible to receive the award will be administratively withdrawn without review.

    must you still be an ESI at the time of award?

    would I be disqualified from receiving the MIRA if this also received a fundable score?
    A "fundable score" is not the same as a funded grant. So no.

    at the time of submission of the MIRA, my R01 will have been reviewed, but certainly not yet funded.
    Then you would still be eligible for ESI and your baby MIRA would be accepted for review. At the point at which you get your first R01 (or other ESI-disqualifying award), you are no longer eligible for baby MIRA and they will pull it from further consideration. Supposedly. I am not convinced that NIH hands (meaning the various ICs) talk to each other particularly speedily. I would not be surprised if someone, say, got a new award 4/1 and had a baby MIRA slated for review in June that wasn't pulled from study section. Not sure there is an efficient notification mechanism. OTOH, you do need to submit updated Other Support prior to any award and it would certainly be caught at that point.

  • seqwonk says:

    Coming from a newbie PI without NIH funding, I hope you'll look at this technical correction kindly, but I disagree with dm's interpretation. The FOA states "Eligibility to *apply* is determined based on PD/PI status *on the application due date*."

    While the FOA also states that "Eligibility to receive the award is determined at the time of award.", the only limitation to receiving the award is receiving a "disqualifying award prior to issuance of the R35."

    While I realize this question was asked in the context of a pending R01 (which, if awarded would make you ineligible to receive the award), I would interpret the FOA to state that you must be an ESI to apply, but you can receive the award even after the 10-year ESI limit expires, provided you have not received another R01-equivalent grant in the meantime.

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